April 22, 2012

It's all fun and games, and then someone learns something new!

I was fortunate to be a Demonstration Teacher again at another professional development day as part of the Quality Teaching Network Series.  I had presented earlier in the year on some ways to engage students with Math concepts and I was asked if I had any ideas for Science, Socials, or Language Arts. I often like to share something new anyways in case I have any repeat participants, as I have been doing a number of workshops this year. When preparing for this day I knew I wanted to change not only the subject area examples, but also the format of how I shared what I am doing in my classroom. I realized that the previous workshop(s) included too much information about the structure my lessons and the theory behind what I am doing. It may well have been useful, but a tad overwhelming! Mainly I think teachers who have been to my sessions have said that they want more examples, more ideas. Most teachers want to see it to believe it! So this time I decided to scale back on the theory stuff and make it more practical. I brought in some more ideas I am working with and shared some photos of students participating in activities, as well as samples of their work from each of the areas mentioned above. 

My workshop ended up being called: "Cards, Games & Role-play: Making learning fun in Stories, Science & Socials!" I felt the workshop ended up being a lot of fun in comparison to the previous one(s) because I had other teachers actively involved by trading cards and getting involved in a few games. The tell-tale signs were teachers laughing and sharing ideas. I wanted my participants to experience what my classroom is like, as opposed to just hearing or reading about it, since this is how I approach my actual lessons. I don't want my students to just hear me lecture or read textbook information, I want them actively and emotionally engaged in their learning through fun experiences.  The ideas I brought (cards, games and role-play) were not just presented as fun "add-on" activities to other lessons; rather I stressed the notion that they can powerful learning tools that create the conditions for students to have emotional connections and responses to learning new concepts. 

I will share one idea with you now and maybe others in a later post. It is a game I created for my Language Arts curriculum, specifically for Literature Circles. Traditionally Lit. Circles can be organized where students are grouped by reading ability and they choose a novel together. The purpose of the group is to share the reading and have discussions about the book - to share, ask questions, and clarify with each other. The teacher becomes a facilitator who can move around from group to group implementing some formative assessment work, asking questions and making suggestions with each group or for each individual as needed. I still use this format for the first month, but I have found that after awhile students start to lose focus and interest in their Lit. Circles and in the way they respond. Typically I have students share back to each other through a written response (and I check these after). So sometimes changing the format can re-energize the students into their reading. 

The game I introduced is called: "Roll For Your Role". It is very easy to set up and requires very little as far as supplies. The main thing is dice - that alone is often enough to get kids excited because it is a bit unusual to be using dice in a reading activity. Come on, who doesn't like dice!! I chose some clip art for my role cards and developed some initial criteria with the students about what each card means. (Each one is described as a question from top left, to top right, bottom left, then bottom right.)

Instruction Card

Connection Cards

(What did you feel? How does this fit in with what you already know or what puzzled you? What was exciting or powerful about what you read? what was unexpected or stopped you in your tracks?)

Question Cards

What would each of the following characters ask? What does it sound like when they ask a question?
(a superhero? a detective? a robot: facts only? a reporter?)

Communication Cards

What does each of the following characters look for? What do they value in a story?
(a superhero? a robot? a reporter? a detective?)

They are other cards in my sets and I have more detailed descriptions for each one, but I hope you get the idea. The point of the game is to get students to look at the story elements from different perspectives and to imagine what each different character might be thinking or feeling. My students have a blast playing this game and they love "acting" out their responses to each other.

Choosing their role responses
Sharing and discussing elements of the story
Rolling to see what happens next
Acting out a response is a lot of fun!

You should see my students eagerness to read and the laughter we hear in the classroom. They are so excited about playing the game that they want to get through their reading so they can share what they read, thought and/or felt about it. 

I have left out much of the explanation of the theory or reasoning as to why I have included certain "roles" in order to keep it simple for you to try in your own class; but the use of super heroes, reporters, detectives etc... are purposeful choices for me, because children at this age are fascinated with the heroic and mysterious aspects of reality. I think you get the idea that this is fun because getting into "roles" allows them to play with reality. So whatever pics you choose, make sure to give meaning to each one and even ask your students ones that they might want to find and include.

Using trading cards, games and role-play as part of your instructional "toolkit" will help to deepen emotional connections for students; thus enhancing recall of information, and a deeper and more meaningful understanding of new learning situations. Putting learning into a form that is fun allows students to actively participate in lessons, which is crucial for them to become empowered as learners and take risks.

April 15, 2012

Doctor's orders - keep moving forward, don't wait to be inspired!

I have been asked quite a few times, "Where do you come up with this stuff?" The "stuff" consists of the ideas and lessons I have been talking about with other teachers and in this blog. Well, today I am writing this for fear that I might never write anything meaningful, worth talking about again. (Okay, I've got a flare for the dramatic, but it has been a while since my last post.) Mainly I haven't written anything because I just couldn't find that inspiration to write about. It's like when you have been in a really good work-out routine for months, maybe years, and then you take a few days off. Then those days quickly turn into weeks, and before you know it a month has passed and your running shoes have seen no action. How do you get back into that healthy routine? 

Well, that's where I am at! So, I decided to go to the doctor, Dr. Seuss that is! P.S. - Walt Disney is going to be my personal trainer. 

I have to admit that I have been pretty over-excited at times about what is happening in my classroom, and this blog has proven to be a great outlet for me. Overall the ideas have come one after another as I have reflected on my practice. The ideas for my lessons and my year-long themes have to be inspired though, and I find inspiration in many places, often through reading others' work and writing about my own. 

I like what Dr. Temple Grandin said in her 2006 book: Thinking in Pictures. She explains about how her thinking develops in her work as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, 

"Visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination...before I attempt any construction, I test-run the equipment in my imagination." 

What is outstanding about Dr. Grandin is that despite having Autism she has no lack of ideas and inspiration, and she completed a PhD in her field of study. She talks about putting herself inside the cattle's heads and looking out through their eyes. 

I am not designing livestock equipment and I don't care so much about cows; my study is about students and learning. Nevertheless, similar to Grandin, my inspiration comes from my interactions with the students and also by considering what the world is like from their perspective. Likewise, I also need space and time to reflect alone and run things through a few times in my mind before I actually implement them in the classroom. Sometimes this can be quite productive, but it can also be a perplexing and lonely place at times. What happens when the ideas just don't seem to come in the same ways they were before, and there is no template for what you are doing? What do you do?

I start to ask myself a lot of questions. Is is just because I am going down the same path over and over that I am getting de-sensitized or bored? Sometimes though when you try to do things in a new way and you abandon the old methods, there is no safety net or prescribed path. I don't quite have a routine that I can fall into yet. Will I ever? It's an uncomfortable place to be in, but I can't go back. 

It's maybe what Dr. Seuss meant by "The Waiting Place" in his book: Oh the Places You'll Go!.

There is hope of course, as he writes shortly after, "No, that's not for you!".

Have you ever heard of Akiane Kramarik? She is truly amazing! Akiane is known as a child prodigy for her painting and poetry. She started sketching and painting at the age of four. Here is one of her recent paintings about wonder:

Akiane credits her "gift" as inspired by God, even though she was raised in a non-religious home. What I really love is an inteview I heard her mother give. She said that Akiane has a gift yes, but she also works extremely hard. "She gets up sometimes at 4am to work in her studio. Akiane does not wait for inspiration, inspiration waits for her."

I am on this journey already of course, but there are always new paths to take and a new perspective to take along the way. Maybe I will change something about my classroom design, or re-work my weekly schedule to see if that affects the kind of change I am looking for, or ask the kids more questions about what they want to find out more about, or ask another teacher if I can observe their teaching practice to find out what I am lacking in mine, or read more books and blogs...or all of the above!!

I find more inspiration in the Disney animated movie: Meet the Robinsons. Walt Disney's famous motto "Keep moving forward" inspires a young inventor to not give up on himself and his dreams. So I'm going to do just that. I have to put one foot in front of the other and hope I don't fall flat on my face. It feels good actually to get out on the trail and get some dirt on my shoes again, especially when I have been away for so long. It seemed that way anyways, or at least there was the threat of the well running dry if I didn't. (pun intended)

I know that I can't be stuck here in this place for long. I have to move on, and that is why I write. As Dr. Seuss' book ends, "So...you're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!" 
So, I am going to challenge myself again and try something new. Mountain hiking can be strenuous, but you always gain so much perspective and a feeling of accomplishment when you climb up and reach the top. I feel envigorated already, and know this will lead to something else, new and valuable...and inspirational! Thanks for reading, even if it was just for me:)